The Shilling

With New Year’s resolutions still hanging in the air, it seems there have been a lot of sermons about budgeting and giving lately. I confess, I like to give, and am usually able to do it cheerfully. Then again, as much as I try to downsize my life, there never  seems to be 10% of my income that I don’t need.

Yet whenever the offering plate is passed, it’s hard for me to think of giving without remembering something that happened to me a few years back in Africa.

I was visiting two medical missionaries in Tanzania, near the town of Arusha. The church was off the beaten path, a one-room, pink concrete building, with 10 rows of plain wooden benches inside and an outhouse behind the building. The women are dressed in colorful, mismatched clothing – loose, baggy shirts with sleeves to the elbow, long skirts and bright kerchiefs tied around their heads, and the men are dressed in dull-colored shirts and khaki pants. (Contrary to popular belief, mainstream African fashion does not mean scantily clothed in the hot temperatures.) The quickest way to cause a stir in Africa is to wear a miniskirt, as it is considered improper to show one’s legs.

The lesson is on Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” About 10 minutes into the sermon, something brushes up against my side. I look down to discover an adorable five-year-old girl with short-cropped, tightly braided cornrows seated next to me, studying me intensely with large eyes.

I smile, and apparently this is all the encouragement she needs to be friendly. She leans her head against my shoulder, stroking my sweater with a curious finger. Her tiny fingers reach up to touch my earrings, then my hair. She quickly decides we are friends, and proudly shows me a 25-shilling coin her parents have given her for the offering. She searches my hands for my offering, and looks at me in confusion when they are empty.

The honest truth is, I had only arrived in TZ the night before and hadn’t had a chance to get any local currency yet. When I hold my hands out, palm up, to indicate I don’t have an offering, she assumes I must have dropped it. She starts searching the floor, eagerly – it doesn’t occur to her that I don’t have one.  

After all, if she has an offering, this little girl who has nothing, surely the rich foreigner must have one too.

She is determined to help me find my offering and starts lifting up the skirts of people sitting next to us. I don’t know Swahili, and she doesn’t know English, so I don’t know how to tell her to stop.  She just smiles broadly when I try to motion her back to her seat. I don’t know what to say to get her to stop looking, so I let her look. She then enlists the help of nearby children, babbling animatedly in Swahili, to help her search for the white girl’s lost coin.

Eventually she does stop, disappointed that she couldn’t find my misplaced offering for me.

It’s a simple story, but I’ll never forget the look of innocence on her face, and the silence when she realized that either the coin was lost for good or maybe there was no offering after all.

I often think back to that church, a coin in every hand, sitting on benches with no backs for two hours, no one complaining that they are shut in a concrete building in 90-degree weather.

When it comes to tithing, some people quote the story of the widow’s mite, but I will forevermore remember a sweet little face with cornrows looking up at me silently asking, “Where is your offering?”

“I’ll help you find it.”